Editorial: Linden Lab Needs to Fix Sansar’s User Forums and Blogs

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Photo by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

Inara Pey, in her most recent blogpost report of last Friday’s Product Meetup, says this:

Sansar forums, blogs, etc: it has finally been recognised that the current tool used for these – ZenDesk – is not well suited to the task (YAY!), although fixing this is not a high priority. There have been internal discussions at the Lab about using the platform and tools employed in creating the Second Life forums, blogs, etc., to build something for Sansar – potentially more as a cost saving opportunity then for the sake of functionality. Frankly, I’m still stunned that this wasn’t the route taken from the start given the Lab have the tools and the experience to use them, which could have been easily leveraged, rather than going for a tool entirely unsuited to the task and which presents information in a very unfriendly – and dare I say amateur – manner.

AMEN. I am in 100% agreement with Inara on this. I am going to add my strong opinions on this matter, which I have shared already with everybody (including Linden Lab staff) on the official Sansar Discord forums.

I know that at the casual meetup he attended last week, Ebbe Altberg (Linden Lab CEO) said he wants to have a “consumer launch” of Sansar sometime in 2018 (as opposed to a “creator beta”). But BEFORE they do that, Linden Lab really, really needs to reconsider the software they are using for their community forums/blog/documentation. I mean this truly ugly and uninspiring thing with the too-small font: https://help.sansar.com/hc/en-us.

Frankly, it looks terrible and it projects a bad image for Sansar, which in so many other ways has a professional look and some design appeal to it. They already have a fully-functional, attractive-looking community forums/blog/announcement system in place for Second Life, why don’t they use that? Their official blog in particular really looks TERRIBLE, and it has a HORRIBLE URL to boot: https://help.sansar.com/hc/en-us/sections/115001137103-Official-Blog (hate to say it, but it’s true). Linden Lab should fix this before they kick off any campaign to attract consumers/end-users into Sansar.

I hate Zendesk, it is unattractive and Linden Lab can certainly do better. Look at the Second Life community forums page: https://community.secondlife.com/ and their knowledge base: https://community.secondlife.com/knowledgebase/english/ and their blogs: https://community.secondlife.com/blogs/. Much better than what Sansar currently has!

 

Look at what High Fidelity has, it is much more visually appealing and functional: https://forums.highfidelity.com/. High Fidelity uses Medium (a free solution!) for their blog: https://blog.highfidelity.com/. Let’s compare that with the official Sansar blog:

High Fidelity Blog 8 Jan 2018
High Fidelity’s Official Blog
Sansar Blog 8 Jan 2018
Sansar’s Official Blog

I rest my case!

Editorial: Lessons for Sansar from the Failure of Blue Mars

Remember Blue Mars? The following link is to a short Google+ video, which I made in 2012, that shows my Blue Mars avatar being taken on an automated orientation tour of an architectural recreation of the pavilions of the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition. (This build was later successfully ported over to Sansar, and it can be visited here.)

https://photos.google.com/search/blue%20mars/photo/AF1QipNb4LKO29LdFf8RH7YXgyPQ3QVyl6gcw5tulAwe

Blue Mars was based on Crytek’s CryEngine 2 game engine, which allowed for much more realistic graphics at the time than Second Life could offer. It’s hard to see in this rather grainy Google+ video, but the render quality in Blue Mars then still compares favourably to the Sansar of today. In 2012, I was quite impressed.

Blue Mars was a virtual world created by Virtual Realty, a company based in Hawaii. Arguably, it was probably the one virtual world which came the closest to Second Life in terms of functionality. For a short time back in the early part of this decade, Blue Mars looked like it could even become the next big virtual world. Instead, they essentially shut down production in 2012, granting all the technology rights to Ball State University’s IDIA Lab. What went wrong? Why did Blue Mars fail to take off?

Watching the whole arc of the Blue Mars story as an interested spectator, it became clear to me that launching a new virtual world is a much, MUCH more complicated process than at first thought. The developers have to juggle a large number of different variables in order to succeed, a daunting task for any new company. I believe a combination of four factors led to the failure of Blue Mars development, and that there are lessons that Linden Lab could learn from that failure.

1. The developers worked on non-core technology projects at the expense of key critical features of Blue Mars. For example, much work was done on bots (automated avatars with artificial intelligence) at a time when even such basic features as being able to change default animations, or to modify the avatar’s physical size and shape, were lacking. (See one poorly-thought-out example of Blue Mars bots in the picture at the bottom of this blogpost. Yes, this nonsense was a priority!) There was too small a pool of default standing and walking animations to choose from, and the female avatars’ animations, in particular, were seen by some as too anime-like, and borderline offensive.

2. Virtual Realty made a key decision not to cater to the adult market and to keep Blue Mars at a G/PG13 rating. Whether you agreed with it or liked it or not, one of the segments that kept (and continues to keep) Second Life going are adult activities. (This is the part the news media has tended to harp on, to the point that whenever people hear about Second Life nowadays, they automatically assume everybody is busy having pixelsex.) The harsh fact is, pornography drives the development and uptake of technology (the link is to a 2002 article from The Guardian, and don’t worry, it’s quite safe for work!). By deciding not to support the adult role-play communities, many potential developers simply walked away. Technically, it would have been relatively easy to create separate worlds for adult content in Blue Mars, completely separate from all-ages worlds.

As I have said before, Linden Lab has made it very clear that they do not intend to repeat the early mistakes that were made that marred Second Life’s reputation in many minds. Ebbe Altberg has said that they are not allowing adult content in Sansar until they have strong controls in place that restrict access to that adult content. LL is not stupid, and they know that sex sells. They just don’t want to open the gates until they’re ready. I understand that, and by and large, the Sansar creators understand that. But we aren’t going to wait forever. Adult content has to be somewhere on the development roadmap.

Secoond Life Marketplace 2 Jan 20173. There was an unacceptable bottleneck for developers to get content into Blue Mars. Everything had to be vetted by Blue Mars first, as I understood it. You couldn’t simply put an item up in the store like you can in Sansar, mark it for sale, and be done with it. In fact, there was no online marketplace for Blue Mars content at all, you had to set up an in-world store like you did in Second Life. I constantly wondered at the lack of in-world stores in Blue Mars, and the paucity of offerings on display. I do remember that someone had spent the time and money to build a huge, cavernous shopping mall in Blue Mars, and in the end, they only ever had four items of clothing up for sale! Compare this to the over 6,100 items on sale in Sansar already, only five months after its public launch. Linden Lab has well learned not to put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of potential creators, and the dizzying array of items for sale in Second Life (see image, right) is proof positive of that concept.

It is interesting to note that High Fidelity has proposed a fee of US$10 per item as a PoP listing fee for their new marketplace. (PoP stands for Proof of Product? Proof of Provenance? No one ever got back to me on what that acronym actually stands for.) High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale is quoted from this thread:

If we are going to be serious about protecting creators content, that means we need to carefully check for duplication of existing work as well as other rights violations at the time that we issue a certificate. We’ll conduct a manual search as well as put proposed registrations on public display for a few days. So the process of putting things into the market will be like registering a trademark or filing a patent. The long term cost of that can be whatever level of protection/search makes sense to the community – we don’t intend to make money there. We set it to $10 rather arbitrarily to start, with the idea that we would see how much it costs to do the work and how much we can automate it.

But the key point here is that we need to do a search for similar items, and that search is inherently hard. Otherwise people will copy each other’s stuff and register it (this has already happened in Sansar, btw), and that will make everyone unhappy.

While I think that it is highly admirable that Philip wants to protect creators, the PoP checking system he is proposing is going to set up is exactly the same sort of regulatory bottleneck that eventually throttled Blue Mars development. What’s wrong with simply setting up a system where users can flag an item on the marketplace, as you can in the Sansar Store or the Second Life Marketplace?

4. Blue Mars was extremely poorly promoted. There was zero (and I mean, zero) press. (I know, because I was searching for it at the time.) Very few people outside of the virtual worlds community had ever heard of it. What few events Blue Mars did have were poorly promoted and sparsely attended. They badly needed capable boosters and promoters—raving fans. The potential for something that was a next-step Second Life was indeed there, but few people got to see it and experience it for themselves and figure out how they can take a part in its further development, so it remained moribund and eventually died completely.

I was rather sad when Blue Mars failed to penetrate the virtual world marketplace, but it also underscored just how complex a job it is to create and promote such an enterprise. Frankly, Second Life was just lucky enough to be in the right place and the right time to become the 800-pound gorilla of virtual worlds. Linden Lab is going to need a repeat of that luck in order to for Sansar become the next big thing. Hopefully, the company has learned some lessons from the failure of previous virtual worlds such as Blue Mars.

Blue Mars_ Quiplash and the Suzette Groupie-bots.png
I always laugh when I see this old picture from Blue Mars. The tone-deafness of this automated bot “welcoming” system was staggering. Obviously, someone at Blue Mars thought that this sort of work was a high priority! I just wish I had taken video of this travesty!

Editorial: Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg Responds to the Overwhelming Number of Requests for Various New Features for Sansar

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Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash

Linden Lab is in a tough spot. They often get lambasted by their users for not doing things right. They’re a relatively small company with limited staff resources, trying to set priorities and facing an overwhelming number of requests from an admittedly demanding audience. (And let’s face it, users of virtual worlds are a very, very demanding bunch and they’re not shy about criticizing Linden Lab and its products. You only have to read some of the unending negative commentary about Sansar on SLUniverse and the official Second Life user forums to see that.)

When it comes to the software development roadmap for Sansar, Ebbe Altberg has been quoted as saying that he wants to focus on those new features which will positively enhance user attraction, engagement and retention. Linden Lab is fielding so many different requests from so many different corners: Mac users really want a Mac client, Windows MR headset users desire a Windows MR client, Paypal users are demanding the ability to use Paypal, etc.

That’s why I wanted to highlight something that Ebbe said on the official Sansar Discord channel, in response to a long and wandering conversation about credit cards vs. Paypal:

PayPal will happen some day. It’s on the list of things. Please be patient while we focus more on retention and engagement of those who can participate before we expand to enable more people to participate. Whether that is additional platforms like Mac or Windows MR devices or other payment options etc.

In other words, Ebbe wants to go deeper before he goes wider. Obviously, Paypal is still considered critically important by Linden Lab, but as Sansar’s Lead Community Manager, Jenn, has said on the official Sansar Discord forums:

I can only make my personal guess at this, since I have not touched base with product specifically on this in the last month or so. My thinking is that since we are talking about money every integration ( Paypal, [credit card], debit, other methods), [that] is going to have a timeline that requires a series of vettings, paperwork, contracts, and all kinds of red tape and processes. It is not as simple as saying “we want to work with this, so voilà now that works!” These things have got to take a lot of time and energy to set up in a way that is compliant and secure. [It’s] one of those situations where you have to be patient.

Note a key word from both Ebbe and Jenn’s statements: “patient”. We, the impatient users, seem to forget that Sansar has only been open to the public since July 31st, 2017. That’s less than five months total! Compare that to the over fourteen years that Second Life has been in existence. It’s common, but not really fair, to compare the two Linden Lab products.

One thing you can do to help influence Linden Lab in their future Sansar software development is to create (and vote up) items in the Feature Requests section of the Sansar Community forums. For example, I very much want to have the static display of Web pages on media surfaces in Sansar (a.k.a. “Web on a prim” like what Second Life already has), so I created a Feature Request for that. (By the way, it only has 5 votes, and it could use some more up-votes, please. Thanks!)

Here’s an example of a free product on the SL Marketplace that allows a university to put a webpage, plus some other images/posters, all together into an attractive and useful display for visitors:

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Having this one particular feature in Sansar would allow for the easier integration of Web-based information into Sansar experiences, which makes Sansar more useful for creators, and therefore, end users.

For example, as a research project in 2018, I plan to create a user-navigable, three-dimensional version of the Mathematical Atlas website (a guide to the mathematics literature for undergraduate and graduate students) using Sansar as a platform. (I’ve already hired Maxwell Graf to help me build this experience.)

Why do this? In order to answer the following research questions:

  • What hurdles do academic libraries face in providing access to a pre-existing reference/research tool in a virtual reality environment to students?
  • Are the software tools currently available (for example, those in Sansar) sufficient to build effective, efficient VR experiences for reference? If not, then what else is needed? This research project would be among the very first library and educational uses of the Sansar platform. We could well be pushing against the upper limits of what Sansar can handle (e.g. how many interlinked scenes can you have in one Sansar experience?).
  • How will patrons use reference and research tools in VR? In the specific case of the Mathematical Atlas, will the use of a three-dimensional landscape model help users better grasp the various areas of modern mathematical research and how they relate to each other, as opposed to a traditional flat, two-dimensional webpage? Or will the 3-D model simply get in the way of imparting useful information?

Obviously, the ability to link directly to a static webpage from the Mathematical Atlas website, rather than having to cut-and-paste text from a webpage onto a flat plane in Sansar, would enable me to build my 3D experience much more easily.

But this feature could be applied to many other uses, too. For example, how about a showroom with mannequins wearing avatar fashion, each next to a panel showing the static webpage listing in the Sansar Store, providing all of the vendor’s information about that article of clothing? It’s much easier to update a webpage and link to it, than it is to re-edit text on a flat plane. Also, having multiple versions of the same information means that they will eventually get out of sync.

To get back to my original point, Ebbe’s goals are very clear:

  1. Increase the number of people visiting Sansar (user attraction);
  2. Keep those people coming back into Sansar again and again (user retention); and
  3. Increase the length of time they spend in Sansar overall (user engagement).

So don’t just sit on your asses and complain about how Linden Lab isn’t listening to you! Put your thinking caps on, and let’s see some activity in the Feature Requests section! Let’s see some cool ideas!!

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Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Editorial: Linden Lab Needs to Step Up Their Game

It’s very easy to get certain statistics about Sansar. For example, we know from the Sansar Atlas page that there are currently 790 published experiences (which does not include those whose creators have chosen to keep their URLs private). We also know that there are 6,180 listings of products in the Sansar Store.

There are other statistics which Linden Lab knows, but isn’t sharing (yet, or maybe ever). One of them is the number of user accounts which have been created in Sansar. How many people have come and visited, at least once? Even more importantly, how many of them have stayed?

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(Photo by Matt Cannon on Unsplash)

Sansar is beautiful, but it can also be a lonely place. Yes, there’s now an Upcoming Events listing on the main Atlas page, and there are some regularly scheduled events like Atlas Hopping, where you can meet up with other Sansarians. But it’s still very quiet.

Should we be worried? Is Sansar a flop, a failure, as some people in Second Life attest?

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(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

Hardly. Remember, the doors have only been open to the public in Sansar for four months—not even a full four months yet. I’m sure there were a flood of curious SL sightseers who came, kicked the tires, declared themselves dissatisfied, and then left (which obviously doesn’t help the positive word-of-mouth that Sansar needs).

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(Photo by Ryan Schultz, taken on Sansar’s Opening Day, July 31st, 2017)

Let’s take a look at some other virtual worlds which opened their doors to the public well before Sansar did. VRChat launched on Steam Early Access in February 2017 and AltspaceVR launched its initial product in May 2015. Both have had a  good head start over Sansar, and (arguably) both have a higher number of regular users. In fact, the main fireplace meeting areas in both VR-capable virtual worlds can become quite busy! (By the way, it is interesting that not one, but two, virtual worlds have main meeting points centred on that most primitive of gathering spaces, the campfire.)

High Fidelity, which could be seen as Sansar’s closest competitor, has been in open beta since April 2016, another big head start over Sansar. Again, it’s very hard to tell how many people HiFi has attracted, but events that I have attended there have been popular. Whether they are attracting (or keeping) more people than Sansar is open to debate.

One feature that High Fidelity does have, and which Linden Lab needs to add to Sansar as soon as possible, is the ability to tell from the Sansar Atlas listing how many avatars are present in each experience. A very simple, elegant, and useful solution to the problem of avatars finding other avatars in-world. This should be bumped to the top of Linden Lab’s to-do list, if it isn’t there already.

The key here, and the area in which Linden Lab needs to step up their game, is PROMOTION. I’m still not convinced that Linden Lab is doing everything that they could be to promote Sansar, especially compared to all the press that competitors like High Fidelity, VRChat, and especially AltspaceVR get. Obviously, Linden Lab is hoping that its users will be its best ambassadors, but they can’t (and shouldn’t) rely just on that good-will.

High Fidelity has launched a few self-promotional livestream broadcast shows, like the JimJamz Show and LIVE in High Fidelity with Michelle Osorio. Yes, I know, they’re cheesy, but the fact is, High Fidelity is not waiting for users to do them, they are going out and doing it themselves! Linden Lab needs to think about launching a program or two of their own, as well as encouraging users to launch their own programs, by creating tools such as High Fidelity’s Spectator Camera. HiFi had a well-attended film festival where people submitted entries made with the Spectator Camera. Why can’t we have a video camera tool in Sansar? Another high-priority item for the to-do list.

We need more contests, like the recently-completed Best Props and Sansar’s Scariest Contests.  And instead of having just one grand prize winner, split the pot into a number of smaller prizes (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc.), which will encourage rather than discourage people to enter. (There are many smaller creators who probably felt they never had a chance to win the awesome grand prize for Sansar’s Scariest, and never bothered to enter in the first place.)

And, controversially, Linden Lab needs to encourage more creators to come on-board. Yes, that includes the “big guys” like TurboSquid. The more items in the Sansar Store, the easier it will be for relative novices to come in and build the kind of environments that will, in turn, bring in other users. We need more Jo Yardleys building more 1920s Berlin-type sims in Sansar!

Another area where Linden Lab could possibly do some more work is working with the creators of such easy-to-use content 3-D creation tools as Microsoft Paint 3D and Google Blocks to make it as easy as possible for people to create their own content for Sansar. The process for “prim building” in Sansar, using these sorts of external tools, is still too complicated for many novice users. In my opinion, Linden Lab should seek to actively work with other companies like Google and Microsoft to streamline and simplify the necessary workflow as much as possible.

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(Photo by sasint on Pixabay)

Linden Lab has done a fabulous job so far to bring Sansar to the point where it is right now, and Ebbe and his team should be thanked. But they can’t rest on their laurels. The battle for the metaverse of the future is just getting started! It’s going to be a competitive market, with losers as well as winners. And there is more, a lot more, that Linden Lab could be doing to promote their Sansar brand in the meantime.

UPDATE Nov. 27th: I just wanted to add a few more thoughts.

What with the announcements for HTC’s Driftwood and Amazon Sumerian, the whole social VR space is starting to get very crowded. Some of these competitors have deeper pockets than Linden Lab. The point I am making in this editorial blogpost is that it is going to be a very competitive market for social virtual worlds, and Linden Lab needs to step up their game when it comes to promotion. I understand those people who say that LL might want to wait until Sansar is more feature-rich. But they absolutely cannot drop the ball in this area. They can’t afford to be outflanked by worlds such as VRChat and AltspaceVR, which are getting a lot more press lately. Arguably, AltspaceVR is getting press for the wrong reasons (its fall and saving by Microsoft), but you go there and it’s busy. So is VRChat. They must be doing something right, and LL needs to study what they are doing, and how to do it themselves. Second Life succeeded because they had no effective competition at the time (2003-2008). This is NOT the case today. Put simply, “build it and they will come” worked for Second Life. Linden Lab CANNOT assume that it will work a second time for Sansar.